Our Victorian ancestors would be surprised to learn how rarely we now speak of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor from 161 to 180. The Victorians considered him a towering figure, the ideal philosopher king, but today he makes only occasional appearances on the radar screen of our collective imagination. This month, millions of people are hearing his name for the first time because he's a secondary character, played by Richard Harris, in Ridley Scott's film Gladiator.
Marcus Aurelius was kind and learned, he treated his enemies with compassion, he improved the lives of his people, and he wrote a book of Stoic philosophy, Meditations, which Victorians used as a moral self-help manual. Matthew Arnold, England's supreme critic of culture, called him scrupulous, pure hearted, and upward striving -- all in all, "perhaps the most beautiful figure in history." Ernest Renan, Arnold's French contemporary, compared Marcus' philosophical views of death with those of the Buddha, Jesus and Socrates.
And then there was his son. If Marcus was a candidate for history's most admirable character, Commodus was everyone's favourite villain, a paranoid egomaniac. Gladiator, which deserves the success it's having in the theatres, draws most of its dramatic force from a sworn enemy of Commodus -- a fictional Roman general, Maximus, the Russell Crowe character.
Crowe's rich, subtle performance in The Insider established him as a talented actor, but in Gladiator he's suddenly an old-fashioned, Gary Cooper-style movie star, his hooded eyes projecting an unassailable, rock-hard authority. He seems all the more powerful because he's playing off Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Commodus as a peevish, paranoid creep, rather like Peter Ustinov's whiny Nero in the 1951 film Quo Vadis.
The last time a major Hollywood film dealt with second-century Romans was in 1964, when Anthony Mann made The Fall of the Roman Empire, with Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius and our own dear Christopher Plummer vastly enjoying himself as a degenerate, loathsome yet weirdly charming Commodus. That film was memorable mainly for its sets, above all the wooden fortress in northern Europe where Marcus Aurelius was defending the empire against the barbarians. Gladiator's production designers do just as well at visually re-imagining the period, in particular the dusty, gritty North African outposts of the empire where Maximus, having been captured and enslaved, learns to be a gladiator.
The script doesn't make any portentous announcements, as movies did in the old days, about showing us a turning point in history. We have to intuit that we are seeing just one corner of something truly astounding. In truth, the reign of Commodus, 180 to 192, was a time when the plates beneath society shifted and the crust of civilization buckled.
Before Commodus, there were many signs that the Roman empire was weakening, but if decline was predictable, it wasn't inevitable. Under Commodus, deterioration was swift, and the downward momentum became unstoppable. His dozen years in power were so chaotic, bloody, mindless and self-indulgent that the civic character of Rome was broken beyond repair. He killed friends as often as enemies. At one point a raging Roman mob insisted that Commodus' chief lieutenant was responsible for everything that was going wrong: Commodus gave them the man's head on a pole, and the crisis passed.
Renan wrote that "The day of the death of Marcus Aurelius can be taken as the decisive moment at which the ruin of ancient civilization was decided." It was the close of the old world -- and the period covered by Gladiator is the real beginning of the story told in Edward Gibbon's six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Marcus Aurelius did all he could to make his son and heir a worthy emperor, but serious study bored the young Commodus; his response to it, as Gibbon wrote, was "inattention and disgust." He didn't even pretend to an interest in poetry or music, as other evil emperors did. Commodus liked sex, he liked killing people, and he liked blood sports. In Gladiator, he lusts only after his sister, but if we believe Gibbon, he had more various tastes; as emperor he kept a harem of 300 women and about the same number of boys, "and wherever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence."
Commodus' self-regard was limitless; he tried to rename all the months of the year after his various titles, and he wanted to rename Rome after himself. As a gladiator he fought 735 bouts, winning all of them because his opponents understood that it would have been unwise to defeat him.
When he wasn't fighting humans, he killed exotic animals, brought to Rome for that purpose. An expert archer, he enjoyed felling a panther in the arena, just as it was leaping onto some terrified slave. He slaughtered even hippopotami and rhinoceroses. When he beheaded an ostrich with one of his crescent-headed arrows, the audience applauded while the ostrich ran headless around the arena. Once he publicly killed a giraffe.
Commodus' own end was violent, but not in the way Gladiator shows us. A favoured concubine, who imagined she might easily be the next of his close associates to die, drugged his wine, and a professional wrestler entered his bedroom and strangled him in his sleep.
Why doesn't Marcus Aurelius seem so important to us as he did to the Victorians? Empires are no longer popular, and it's possible that the Roman world no longer excites a wide public the way it once did. Meditations still has readers, but the Stoic philosophy (pain and death are natural, therefore not to be feared) has lost some of its appeal. The Stoic view that nothing matters except reason now seems unnecessarily dour and joyless, and Marcus' private responses to life (he seems to have regarded "eating, sleeping, copulating, excreting and so on" as equally disgusting) now seem neurotic. Perhaps, being more self-indulgent, we are less impressed than the Victorians by Marcus' hatred of self-pity and his insistence that only fools blame others for their failures.
But if all that's true, why isn't Commodus the historic villain that the Victorians thought him to be? There, the answer's easier: Tragically, we've since seen far worse.